A shopping oasis on a small caribbean island
St. Maarten is an island nation in the Lesser Antilles region of the Caribbean. It is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, sharing Saint Martin Island with its counterpart to the north, the Collectivité de Saint-Martin, an overseas “collectivity” and former colony of France. Dutch St. Maarten, which comprises about 40 percent of the island, has a population of approximately 34,000 in an area of 13 square miles. Its economy is mostly based on tourism – long-term visitors and day tourists from the many cruise lines that dock in Phillipsburg Harbor in the nation’s capital.
On a narrow strip of territory on St. Maarten’s western shore, between Simpson Lagoon to the north and the Caribbean Sea to the south, and very close to the French border, sits the Blue Mall and Blue Residences St. Maarten, a complex designed and built by Fondo de Valores Inmobiliarios, a Caracas, Venezuelan-based company that was founded by Luis Emilio Veluntini in 1992. In 2002, Veluntini directed his company toward building more malls and shopping centers, in addition to its portfolio of office building and commercial centers.
Stacy Paul, Blue Mall’s Marketing Coordinator, recounts the genesis of the St. Maarten enterprise: “Before Blue Mall, there was not a shopping center of that caliber on the island,” she says. “We had various little commercial centers comprised of business offices and retail outlets, but nothing of this kind.” So, Blue Mall’s developers decided to fill the void with an ultra-modern looking edifice that would house a combination of retail outlets and residential condominiums.
“Construction started in 2005, but we were not able to finish until 2011,” Paul continues. “The residences were finished, but the commercial sites took a little longer. We had a progressive, soft opening in December 2012, just with a few shops, because we wanted to get underway, and now we have 28 retail outlets and a few restaurants. The building also comprises two levels of underground parking, a rooftop pool, and a fitness center. And one of the things that sets us apart is we have a really majestic building and you can take your time and go about your business in air-conditioned comfort.”
According to Paul, the developers’ original intent was to appeal predominantly to upscale buyers. “If you were to judge us primarily by the design of the building, it is entirely high-end,” she says. “But, after opening, they realized it would not have been sustainable to only cater to luxury clients. We had to have something for everyone. So then we developed into having a mix – we have the luxury stores, and the middle-range stores. We’re going more in a direction of catering to every sector of society. We’re not fully finished yet. We still have spaces to fill. We still have products to develop. But we’re seeing the growth.”
Paul maintains that Blue Mall doesn’t really have any competition, as such, because there is nothing else like it on a very small island. However, she does acknowledge that challenges exist. “Our biggest obstacle is location,” she says. “We are not very close to Phillipsburg, which is the city center.” Indeed, Blue Mall’s relatively remote site does put it at a distinct commercial disadvantage – Phillipsburg is not only a popular stop for cruise ships, its Front Street shopping area is graced with quaint, cobblestone streets and colorful, colonial-style buildings. Thus, for too many tourist shoppers, the trek past the airport and out to Cupecoy Beach to the Blue Mall is not on the itinerary. Paul agrees: “Cruise tourism is a goal of ours, but the growth is not as quick as we hoped.”
Another problem for Blue Mall has been its equally slow acceptance by the island’s residents. “The locals are our steadier customer base – they’re always there,” explains Paul. “They’re the ones that we want to work with the most; they’re the ones we market towards the most. But people are usually scared by how the building looks and they think that it’s only for the luxury people. We’re slowly getting them to understand that it is open to everyone; there is something for everyone. I want them to know that they can come here and pretty much get everything they want and have a great experience. It is a place to be.
Paul remains convinced that, over time, the notion of shopping, and living, at Blue Mall will become more and more common. To date, not all store spaces are filled and not all of its 37 condos have been sold. A few units belong to foreign owners who keep them as vacation homes, while other owners are investors who have purchased them for use as vacation rental properties. “And we still own a few of them which we manage as rentals,” Paul adds.
Regardless of the challenges, Paul believes that Blue Mall’s better days still lie ahead. “I’m an optimistic person,” she declares. “In five years, I will have all the apartments sold; I will have all my spaces filled with all the services and facilities that we need to go in the direction that we want to go. A couple of things that we have in the pipeline: there will be a very nice conference center here and we’re also looking at a dance studio. And my job will just be to sustain and manage – the hardest part would be over. It’s what we’re working towards.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Blue Mall St. Maarten
WHAT: A modern shopping mall with retail outlets, restaurants, and condominium apartments
WHERE: Cupecoy Bay, St. Maarten
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